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To measure trends in the incidence of HIV-1 infection among drug users in treatment at Thailand's largest drug detoxification unit.A retrospective cohort was established using computed, existing HIV-1 test results of 26 396 inpatients and outpatients admitted for 47 907 drug detoxification treatment courses from August 1987 to August 1992.Matching of patient record numbers showed that 10 050 (38.1%) patients had been admitted two or more times during the period. From these, we selected a cohort of 7807 initially HIV-negative patients. Subsequent seroconversions among them were assumed to have occurred with uniform probability throughout the interval between the last HIV-negative and the first HIV-positive tests.There were 2311 (29.6%) seroconversions in the cohort. HIV-1 incidence among the 5974 (76.5%) who were injecting drug users (IDU) escalated from 20 new infections per 100 person-years (PY) of observation in 1987 to a peak of 57 per 100 PY in 1988, then gradually declining to a stable rate of about 11 per 100 PY during 1991 and 1992. Non-IDU (smokers, inhalers) constituted 683 (8.8%) of the cohort patients, and had HIV-1 incidence rates varying from 0.2 to five per 100 PY. 'Mixed' drug users, defined as individuals reporting different routes of drug administration on different admissions, composed 1150 (14.7%) of cohort patients and had an HIV-1 incidence rate between that of IDU and non-IDU. Prevalence of HIV-1 seropositivity among all IDU increased rapidly, from about 1% in early 1988 to a peak of about 40% by early 1989, and has remained stable through 1992.Prevention efforts must continue for IDU, since recent annual HIV-1 incidence remains high at >10 per 100 PY. Such a high rate suggests that this group should be considered for HIV-1 vaccine efficacy trials. Stable HIV-1 prevalence can mask substantial incidence in a population with high turnover.